Hospitals in Surabaya, Indonesia, were preparing Tuesday to receive and identify bodies recovered in the Java Sea that Indonesian officials said may have come from the wreckage of the missing AirAsia Flight QZ8501. The plane en route from Surabaya to Singapore was carrying 162 people on board, including 16 children and an infant. At least 40 bodies were sighted and six were recovered Tuesday from the waters off the coast of Borneo, according to the Independent.
Based on the precedent set by previous airline disasters, including the crash of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July, experts are likely set to begin a long process of identifying the remains. The victims were due to be identified at Surabaya’s Bhayangkara Hospital, though the condition of the bodies remained unclear, something which could possibly affect the identification process, the Independent said. Early reports suggest that the bodies sighted by investigators were found in a bloated condition, according to the New York Times.
In similar cases of mass disaster, the first step forensic experts take is collecting certain information about the victims before their death, including their age, hair color and stature, all of which may assist in their identification, according to the Daily Mail. DNA is also collected from the remains, usually from parts of the body with the least amount of degradation, particularly deep muscle tissue. This data is then cross-referenced with DNA samples collected from victim’s homes, including from toothbrushes or combs. Experts can also use DNA samples from close family members, such as a parent or child to make the identification.
Once investigators are able to establish that a particular remain belongs to an individual, they will have a record of that person’s DNA and will be able to connect it with other remains. “It ends up being a kind of giant jigsaw puzzle of trying to place every body part based on its DNA or some other identifying characteristics,” David Foran, director of the forensic science program at Michigan State University said, according to the Guardian in July after Flight MH17 was shot down over rebel-held eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. In March, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared over the South China Sea with 239 on board, and the plane has yet to be found.
While DNA can be recovered even in the case of severe damage to the bodies, there are also other ways to collect primary identification evidence, such as fingerprints and dental records. This information is then backed up with secondary information, such as tattoos or signs of previous surgeries, the Guardian reported.
Police in Indonesia have already begun collecting materials from the families of the victims, including DNA samples and fingerprints. The passengers on the flight include 155 Indonesians, three South Koreans as well as people from Malaysia, Singapore, France and Britain.